UK Gravity Enduro Race Report – Hamsterley Forest 25-26th May 2013

The Pro Ride Guides boys have been eagerly awaiting the 2013 UK Gravity Enduro at Hamsterley. The forest is filled with trails for every rider and all abilities, everything from serious and steep DH tracks to tricky and technical ‘rock and root’ sections, with a never ending mix of XC and trail routes; pleasing even the most aggressive and gifted riders – after all, Hamsterley is the location where young DH superstar, Danny Hart has long honed his skills and style.

Last years race was a great success for the UK Enduro scene – Blistering sunshine, dry trails and huge crowds of supporters on the tracks chosen for the event. The atmosphere was electric, bikes buzzing past and riders amped to shred the trails all weekend. When riding is this much fun, it’s easy to forget about competing. Simply blasting the trails, swapping lines and exchanging brutal banter… that’s what it’s all about!

Grim up North lad Photo: Doc Ward

Hoping for the best, but preparing (and expecting) for the worst may sound a little pessimistic, but is arguably the best mind-set to head into the challenge of Enduro racing with. Enduro takes in everything great about mountain biking – time in the saddle, friends, fast tracks, technical riding, competition, the great outdoors and not to mention the ‘food is fuel factor’…. Whether you’re munching on BBQ with ‘Twelve50’ bikes, chowing down on some fresh pasta from ‘The Billy Can’ or grilling up your sausages at the back of your van – rejoicing in the sun, surrounded by 300 other like minded adrenalin junkies… biking bliss.

Mark, Joe and Al.

However, we all know that every race, event and ride has its threats. Poor weather conditions, bike maintenance issues and inadequate clothing selection can lead to a brutal day on the bike. Those who battled to the end of Coed-y-Brenin in 2012 will know what I mean. Eagerly anticipating the forecast in the coming days before the event we weren’t surprised to see heavy rain and sun on the cards… Luckily for us, the heavy rain drenched the forest on Friday and gave way to perfect sunshine for the rest of the weekend… That’s right, a full weekend of sun in the North! The tracks progressively dried out throughout Saturday, and made way for a no-holds-barred approach to Sundays racing!

The PRG boys met on the Saturday morning for some practice and pondering. Practicing tracks that is, and pondering “which wheel size” to use. Now, I won’t go too far into this, as I’d like to keep your attention for a little while longer… We’re all hearing the advantages and disadvantages of wheel size – big wheels roll better, small wheels turn better – enough said. Well, the tracks looked pretty suited to the bigger wheels, with lots of pedalling and fast rolling sections to gain time on the 26” shredders. So it came down to this, Joe and I have spent the past month on the little wheels and have become accustomed to them, so sacrificing potential advantage to familiarity, we brought out team green on the Santa Cruz Nomads.

Always time to style it - Mark looking smooth on his Nomad. Photo: Doc Ward

So the scene was set, sunshine, familiar bikes, friends and pockets full of snacks. Time to get a race on. Qualifying on Saturday afternoon has a little added pressure now – your time is added to the 5 stages on the Sunday to make a longer event and fairer seeding. Heading up the hill together, the banter starts… Joe begins with his questioning of my suspension set up, “Have you put it back to your settings, from me fiddling this morning?”…. I reply with, “You did want 45psi in your tyres didn’t you?”… Laughing each other off, then simultaneously pausing, in worry that the other isn’t joking.

Holding a little back (making sure you’re not going to bin it), but also getting a good qualifier is a fine line…. The boys all ticked the boxes coming down the hill with 4th, 6th and 8th. Happy with our results we headed off to re-fuel for the following days racing.

It’s a difficult job choosing tracks for an Enduro race, you need enough hard-pack trail to build speed and introduce the location, some DH to keep the kamikaze kids happy, natural stuff for the single-track warriors and deep (impossible to ride) mud for Simon Van Dijk… Well, we were pleased to see that Hamsterley didn’t fall too short of this, 5 well taped and chosen stages throughout all the terrain the forest had to offer… Sure, you could still sit in your armchair and spout out, “they should’a used Pea-Brain and Spam-Roller trails”, but then, you’d be about as much use as the fore-mentioned trail names. The tracks chosen were a great mix, hats off to all involved in that, especially Charlie for meticulously taping out any “Scottish” (not my words) lines… ?

Joe getting low and going wide. Screen shot: Aspect Media

Stage 1 led you into a tricky trail tossed with roots and rocks to push even the most balanced rider off line. Off camber madness combined with a maze of trail to choose, meant for some serious line considerations… and relentless abuse of whichever one of us attempted to convince the others that “going through the mud”, was faster.

Mistakes will always be made in racing; one of the beauties of Enduro is that everyone will make some…. Therefore, it often comes down to who can carry the most speed and make the fewest mistakes overall. So here’s what happened on stage 2. Starting on the top of the hill, on a section of trail known as Route 66, riders battled with a minefield of tree stumps and buttress roots choosing the craziest of lines through the wide open section, turns out straight isn’t always fastest. We’d all fought well and cleared the field with no mistakes, blasted down the dark alley of trees and into the tricky natural section, before the forest road crossing… Things get easier from here as we sprinted, chest to bar through some winding single track before the final slope to finish. With your chest down and head low its hard to read the trail….. Yep, you guessed it; both Mark and myself dropped the front wheel off the trail at the easiest bit, and flipped the bar. Muppets.

Now I’m not into hoping people crash, but this is the point (whether you admit it or not) you start really wanting people to make mistakes. There isn’t enough time between riders, to not loose places per mistake, and Mark and I had made ours. That said, all you can do, is forget about the bad bits and think positive into the next stages. Frustration rarely leads to improvement in performance.

Al back on track. Photo: Doc Ward

Stage 3 was well anticipated by all. The old NPS DH route always gets people talking. A place where trial condition can make or break you. Luckily the deep mud had left us and we were in for a fast rolling, slightly slick track all the way to the bottom; strong performances from the team, and no mistakes on the rooty drop-to-road crossing. Phew.

Attacking the switchbacks. Photo: Ben Pinnick

Not too much thought (or practice) had gone into Stage 4 for the PRG team, seemingly straight forward single-track split by a gruelling sprint up a forest road, means maintaining speed and staying on line – easy enough right? Well, at normal speed and even faster, it’s so much fun to blast down ‘Brain Freeze’ and ‘Special K’, but at race pace… It’s a hair-raising mix of two wheeled drifts through berms, gravity defying floating moments over rock-strewn compressions and jumps way too short to hit the landing (gulp). There’s usually a group of riders (having just finished themselves) watching you finish the stage, not here though, and I quickly realised why as I pedalled along the transition to the final stage, in a stunned trance, only thankful to still have my skin! Yeah, that was on the edge of traction.

Stage 5 had come around sooner than we’d expected, the short transitions between the stages maximised the fun whilst minimising the fatigue…. all out for Stage 5? Here’s where you make the biggest decision of the day. Going at 100% inevitably means you’ll make a mistake (crash) somewhere and lose that pedalling speed you put in. On the other hand, hitting it 80% usually means you’ll get down without making any mistakes and still get a solid time. So, somewhere between 81% and lets say 95%, is where you want to be…. Good luck.

Go hard, keep your head up, read the trail and keep wide into corners. Cranking on the pedals I feel my foot glance off a sniper like tree stump, I stay focused, death gripping the bar I take aim into the next berm, scrubbing speed I focus on the exit. Railing into the rock garden my concentration is heightened by the masses of supporters chanting my name, my mind flickers but I stay on target, keep low and stay loose. Cheers of supporters fill my ears, I take sight on the exit of the rock spine before the finish, slamming into the final berms and pushing my body into the arena, it isn’t tiredness or pain I feel, but relief. We’ve all finished the day in the Top 10 elites.

Joe takes the second fastest time on stage 5. Photo: Ben Pinnick

That quiet and solemn relief quickly turns into an overwhelming sense of happiness… Smiling from ear to ear, we’re all surrounded by like minded individuals, passionate about one thing; riding bikes with friends. After finishing, we all sit equally on the grass, laughing at stories of near misses and ‘wish I’d have’, pedalled harder or dragged the brakes less… No matter how fast you are, no matter what make your bike is or what tyres you run, the undisputed critical factor will always be, fun.

This is Enduro.

Check out this great edit from Aspect media.

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